By Jeanne Beker
Portrait Photography by Ryan Emberley
Photography by Michael Graydon, Ted Yarwood, David Whittaker and Angus Fergusson
It’s not often that you encounter a duo that makes you feel as though you’re getting a warm hug and a brain massage at the same time. But that’s exactly the feeling I got spending a cozy hour conversing with two of Canada’s most successful and beloved design experts — architect Richard Wengle and interior designer Brian Gluckstein. The affable pair, who have collaborated on dozens of residential projects together, are lifelong pals, initially meeting when they were just seven or eight. They grew up in the same North York neighbourhood, attended the same public school and rubbed shoulders at the Richmond Hill Golf Club as kids. Even now, they live a block away from each other in Forest Hill. It’s obviously a match made in design heaven. And being on the same “design page” has made for both personal and professional joy, to say nothing of all their satisfied clients who, thanks to Brian and Richard, have a new appreciation for what great design entails.
I THINK THAT WE HAVE A REAL AND UNCOMPROMISING PASSION FOR DESIGN. AND I THINK THAT HAS ATTRACTED THE SAME CLIENT. THE CLIENT WHO REALLY WANTS A FABULOUS HOUSE ARCHITECTURALLY ALSO WANTS A FABULOUS INTERIOR.
It doesn’t take long to understand why these two visionaries are able to work together as well as they do: They both come to their respective crafts with an enormous amount of respect for each other’s talents and are adamant about both inspiring and pleasing their clients. And the like-minded design partners share values, insights and philosophies that enable them to finish each other’s sentences. “I think that we have a real and uncompromising passion for design. And I think that has attracted the same client. The client who really wants a fabulous house architecturally also wants a fabulous interior,” explains Brian.
Originality and informed design references are what both these creative forces pride themselves on. And their seasoned, critical eyes have given them very specific points of view that have resulted in making their brands household names for upscale homeowners. It’s been decades of hard work, of course, that have helped grow their businesses into luxury brands. But their unerring focus and drive is evidently based on the fact that they both knew what they wanted to do from a very young age. “It started as a child really, always building things,” reflects Richard. “And I loved construction. But then I started watching everything get built. I just watched buildings from the ground up. I was fascinated by that.” Though he was groomed to be a doctor, he was determined to pursue his own dreams, eventually studying architecture at the University of Toronto. “I also loved art, art history, all the things that contribute to architecture. It’s an all-encompassing profession. It’s not just about design and technicalities — there’s law, there’s philosophy,” he says.
Brian’s path was apparent from an early age, too. His parents owned a furniture business when he was growing up, so it’s no surprise he found his calling with ease. “I’ll never forget there was a very dear friend of my father’s who made mattresses and upholstered furniture, and this man would go to Europe and get all the Italian design magazines, ones that you couldn’t buy in Canada,” Brian reminisces. “And he would give my father stacks of them to give to me. I don’t know how he knew that these magazines would appeal to me. But I loved them! I loved looking at the interiors. They were so adventurous, so modern and so cutting-edge.” Brian’s sister was also studying interior design before him at the former Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). He became very intrigued with all her projects and remembers sitting in bed at night poring over the stacks of international design publications.
It was shortly after graduating from his Ryerson design studies that Brian ran into Richard again. The two hadn’t really seen one another since high school. And somehow, they knew they were destined to work together. Their mutual appreciation for both architectural and design history and details served as a rich backdrop for their compelling collaborations, and both concur that they’re only getting better with age. “You never stop learning,” states Richard. “And things that you maybe saw 10 years ago, you look at them differently, maybe in a little more educated and seasoned way, because you just keep owning the skill. And it’s amazing what your brain and your hand and your eye can do.”
Gaining confidence with age is also something that’s served both Richard and Brian well. Life experience is something that figures greatly for both men in terms of giving them a frame of reference. Some of the best education comes from their many global travels, when they’re exposed to monumental historical design. “It’s that knowledge of history that allows you to do things, whether they’re traditional or modern, because there’s proportion, there’s detail or scale that you can only do well if you understand the history of design and architecture. Unfortunately, a lot of the schools are not teaching that. But there is an appetite for design. Richard and I are very similar in that when we go and travel, Richard will come back with thousands of pictures of details of the buildings and doors and balconies and railings and I’ll do the same thing.”
Richard is quick to show me a photo he just snapped a few days earlier in Italy, of the detailed base of a Roman column. “Gorgeous, isn’t it? Yeah, that’s probably from 300 BC. And the security guard who was guarding this display said: “What are you doing?” as I was shooting this thing,” he laughs. “And I said, ‘We don’t’ have this stuff at home!’ I took about 8,000 pictures over the last two weeks,” boasts Richard.
Brian admits he’s also constantly photographing design details that help plant seeds of inspiration for many of the team’s projects. “We just did a project in Palm Beach and I had photographed an old mosaic floor in the antiquities department at the Metropolitan Museum,” shares Brian.
“It was mosaic in black and white, and the floor is thousands of years old. And we reproduced it for this bathroom in Palm Beach and it looks so modern! And people walk in and go “Oh wow! It’s so cool.” I’m like, ‘Yeah, that design is 3,000 years old!’ But it’s black and white and modern and cool. And they can’t believe it. And that’s what gives soulfulness to design.”
Context and interpretation are key to individual expression and great style, and both Richard and Brian delight in playing with juxtaposition and mixing eras. Lightening up the heaviness of architecture with the freshness of modern furniture is also something that has great appeal. But as much as these two are kindred spirits when it comes to design philosophy, they also realize how different their chosen métiers can be. While architecture has more of a sense of permanence, interior design can be more fleeting and even disposable. “Architecture influences the whole neighbourhood,” notes Brian. “Something like an interior, where if you like it, you don’t like it — it doesn’t matter. Architecture really affects everybody around it. So a building really changes the city.” While one might think that as an interior designer Brian would be consumed with mere decor, he claims he had a sense of the importance of space from early on. “It wasn’t just about a drawing. I could visualize three-dimensionally what a space looked like and how it should function,” he tells me. “And that’s why Richard and I collaborate so well, because Richard will come up with the designs and the point of view of the structure of the house. And then he’ll say, ‘Okay, what do you think about the layout?’ And we’ll look at the way we’re going to furnish it or lay things out and say, ‘Well, what if we open this opening a little bit, and when we move this this way, and what if the kitchen was turned out this way?’”
As with any successful relationship, it’s what the players glean from one another that keeps things fresh and productive. What is it that Richard gets from Brian? “I think Brian presents a certain formality in his planning, which is good because it helps us set up the home,” says Richard. “When I know I’m going to be working with Brian, I know there are things that he’ll be looking for that we can automatically start on. It saves a lot of time because I know he has a direction and certain principles that we want to adhere to. And it’s good lessons for architects because interior design is a very complicated discipline. People just think it’s fabric and colour. It’s anything but! It’s space. It’s volume. It’s light. So, we’ve had some very, very large projects that we hit 75 to 80 percent on the first shot. When Brian’s the interior designer, I feel very good because it means we’re on the right path.”
AS CLASSICALLY SOUND AND RESPECTFUL AS ALL WENGLE-GLUCKSTEIN RESIDENCES ARE, THE MAGIC LIES IN THE MODERNITY AND SOULFULNESS OF WHAT THEY STAND FOR.
And what has Brian gleaned from Richard? “He’s one of the only architects in our city, if not our country, who really understands classical detail and proportions,” states Brian. “Because of Richard, I have a completely different eye when it comes to classical detail, and how it can be done in a contemporary way. All the proportions have to be correct. So things aren’t chunky, things aren’t stubby. There’s a proportion to classical architecture. It’s like the human body. And it is that discipline of proportion and that discipline of those details and why they exist that have helped us because it is translated to all our interiors.”
Still, as classically sound and respectful as all Wengle-Gluckstein residences are, the magic lies in the modernity and soulfulness of what they stand for. But modern design can be hard to define. “So much of modernity has roots that are historical,” explains Richard. “Modern design really has roots from beyond and it’s just a reinterpretation of older ideas, of something that has been done. Materiality will change, maybe some of the linear proportions for buildings. But much of what we see today just becomes a copy of a copy of a copy,” he says. “I find there is a lot that’s being built today that is so of the moment and that is trying too hard,” adds Brian. “And almost, I don’t want to say disposable — but it really is. If you want a modern space, you have to think about how you bring a soulfulness into it? How do you bring a real personality into the space — not a copycat, not something for shock value, not something gimmicky? There is an intrinsic beauty to a space in its simplicity sometimes, and where you mix history in with a modern environment. Because I find a space that is all done ‘of the moment’ to be very soulless and static.” “And the layers are often missing,” says Richard.
Ultimately, it’s the kind of design storytelling that Richard and Brian manage to do with their creations — storytelling that’s inspired by history — that serves to both educate and inspire their clients. “You have to remember that in ancient Greece and Rome they had no electricity. They had no artificial light. So, what made those spaces work?” asks Brian. “Well, it was the way they did skylights and domes and the way they placed windows where they did overhangs so the sun didn’t cook the space. And when we bring these ideas back to these houses, our clients say, “I just love this environment. It’s changed my life! I look at the world differently after I’ve worked with you guys. I go to places and I never noticed details before. Now, I notice the details.”